Journalism then; journalism now: comprehending the difference

I became a journalist for my hometown newspaper in the spring of 1970, bearing only a degree in geology, the writing skills gained in only one worthwhile college English course, and a pronounced inability to type speedily or accurately. This was years before Watergate, before the downfall of a flawed Richard Nixon inspired a generation of innocents reared in their presumed rebellion of the ’60s to head off to the suddenly booming industry called journalism school. They all wanted to make a difference.

For the first six months, my reporting led many readers to believe my middle name was “correction.” I was a terrible reporter at first. I had more than a dozen corrections of my stories printed in that first half year. I had only three in the next 19 1/2 years (and I’m still arguing about two of them).

Neil L. Perry made himself my newsroom godfather and over time, forged me into a competent, credible journalist. He, with the help of my first sports editor, John Haywood; my news editor, David James; and my managing editor, Bob Dolan, taught me the practice, purpose and values of journalism. What they taught me then I teach to undergraduates today. Their lessons have retained value. But the corporations that own newsrooms today understand too little those lessons.

Neil rarely spoke to me at first, but the few words he used carried much meaning. I became a better interviewer because of the first words he ever said to me: “You talk too fast.” I became a better writer because he left a piece of paper on my desk with nothing but dots on it and the legend “These are the periods you left out of your story.” (It’s an old saw, but still effective.) He made me a better human being because he taught me to care more about people by saying: “Dammit, defend your readers.” Neil believed, as Finley Peter Dunne once said: “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”

Neil was simply the best journalist I had ever met. He made me excited about a profession I entered by chance. Journalism in those days was alive and vibrant. While Neil was the statehouse reporter during the mid-’70s, he wrote a column, because a reader asked him to, explaining what it meant to be a reporter:

Being in the newspaper business … means watching history being made and not being part of it; it means being answerable to everybody but accountable to nobody; and it means being an uninvited guest at any event deemed newsworthy by the powers that be.

But being a newsman also provides an opportunity to shed light where there is only darkness — an opportunity to circulate truth, or to demolish falsehood; to inform and perhaps lead, without preaching; to puncture the balloons of the sanctimonious; and to uplift the spirits of those among us who strike to overcome apathy in themselves and in society.

In those days, our newspaper was owned by two families that believed in newspapers as a public service. Their profit expectations were modest, and they made a good living from the paper. But when the last scion of one family died, its estate sold its share, and the paper became part of a chain. Profit expectations quadrupled. Over my last 12 years, the size of the paper’s newsroom staff steadily eroded.

I still believe in what Neil wrote. Scratch a reporter today and you’re still likely to find ink in his or her blood. The people left in newsrooms today would probably agree with Neil and salute him. He wrote the best description of newspapering I know — and the best explanation of the role of the print press in this still-young experiment in democracy.

Neil was fiercely patriotic. No, he didn’t wear an American flag on his label as broadcast reporters pointedly did after Sept. 11, 2001. He did not wear his patriotic heart on his sleeve for liberals to peck at. He believed in the patriotism inherent in the purpose of journalism — to make democracy work better for all.

Neil was a reporter, and covering politics was his calling. These days, he’d be called an “investigative reporter.” He once said he was proudest of often annoying Tip O’Neill, the Massachusetts Democrat who became Speaker of the House on the premise that “all politics is local.” Neil was a friend of Rep. Silvio O. Conte, then chair of the House Appropriations Committee — but Neil covered his career with a disinterested fervor under which Silvio chafed … but admired.

Neil’s Rolodex had the names and numbers of senators and representatives, their favorite bars and bartenders, their wives and mistresses. He could find anyone anywhere on a moment’s notice, long before cell phones made it so easy. He knew their aides; he knew their interns; he knew their lives often better than they did.

But he’d call in only one or two stories a day. Is that enough to justify paying Neil to work 90 miles from the newsroom and pay for an apartment in Boston so he could live there during the legislative workweek?

Back then, it was. Neil said so, Bob said so, and the publisher said so. That’s because Neil’s stories carried impeccable credibility in their explanations of what state government actions meant to our readers. That is the currency of democracy. Today, however, that currency has been devalued.

Back then, news people ran newspapers. Today, they decidedly do not. Corporations do. David Carr, writing in the Dec. 10 New York Times’The Media Equation” column, said:

Investigative reporting can expose corruption, create accountability and occasionally save lives, but it will never be a business unto itself. Reporters frequently spend months on various lines of inquiry, some of which do not pan out, and even when one does, it is not the kind of coverage that draws advertisers.

Serious reporting used to be baked into the business, but under pressure from the public markets or their private equity owners, newsrooms have been cutting foreign bureaus, Washington reporters and investigative capacity. Under this model, the newsroom is no longer the core purpose of media, it’s just overhead. [emphasis added]

Sadly, Neil died too young from the sins of the newsman often romanticized in film. At least he did not live to see what the newspaper business has become. That alone would have given him a heart attack. Ironically, Neil once left our paper to begin his own weekly newspaper in his hometown across the river. It failed, not because of the lack of quality in his journalism, but because the revenue of the Turners Falls Independent did not surpass its expenses. So he folded it and returned to my daily newspaper.

Had the technology of today been available to Neil, he would have gladly embraced it. He would have recognized the journalistic potential and cost savings of delivering news online. He would have embraced the technology that allows readers (and viewers) to talk back to news enterprises. He’d have loved a spirited blog. But he’d have known he was unique: He was a trained, dogged reporter paid to find out for you what your government has tried to hide. Writes The Times’ Carr:

At the same time, the consumer is feeling more empowered, with Google, Digg and all manner of RSS feeds pushing current data to their desktops. But Google and Digg never made a phone call, never asked hard questions of public officials, never got an innocent man out of jail.

The smartest Web robot in the world is going to come back dumb if there is nothing out there to crawl across. Thousands of bloggers could type for a millennium and not come up with the kind of deeply reported story that freed innocent men — an effort that takes years of inquiry, deep sources and a touch for making unholy secrets knowable. [emphasis added]

That was Neil. He had the intelligence, the skills, the drive, the belief in what he was doing to protect his readers. So did John, David and Bob, the journalists who taught me well. But today, this accomplished core of journalism has been eroded through layoffs and buyouts. The most skilled, most experienced, most credible (and therefore the most expensive) journalists have been laid off or bought out to be replaced by the lesser skilled, less experienced and less credible (and therefore less expensive) neophytes.

I wonder if the latter will find a Neil Perry or a John Haywood or a David James or a Bob Dolan to help them develop. In corporate-run newspapers, it is less likely than, perhaps, it used to be.

The Framers did not intend their provision to the press of First Amendment protection from government interference to create an industry whose overriding purpose would become maximize shareholder income. The Framers no doubt did seek to create an industry that would be required to earn its financial keep, but they expected it to fulfill its end of the bargain — act on the public’s behalf by holding government accountable for its actions.

That political trade — freedom from government interference in exchange for serving the public interest — lies at the heart of the Republic and the democracy that permits it to exist. Newspapers, too, in the days before roads and telegraphs and libraries, were expected to be the nation’s teachers as well as its town criers. That was the deal. That’s why the press received First Amendment protection as well as really cheap postal rates.

But bad management — its failure to see the Internet as an opportunity before being forced to deal with it as a threat — and refusal to adapt a faltering business model has required that short-sighted management to reduce its ability to uphold its public-service obligations.

Cutting resources — by getting rid of the very best workers who most closely act to hold government accountable — to maintain short-term profitability for big-pocket institutional investors leaves newspaper-laden corporations less worthy of protection from government interference.

Newspaper corporations pay lip service to the ideals of quality journalism, public service and guardianship of the democracy. Read their mission statements. You’ll find their lofty words (replete with punctuation errors in many) ring hollow. Writes David Carr:

But enterprises like these will never be a substitute for a vital newspaper industry, which has historically used a distributed model of reporting to hold government, business and the broader culture to account.

There is a chance that historians will examine this period in American history and wonder if journalism left the field. With a lack of real-time annotation, wholesale business swindles and rogue actions by sitting governments will go uncovered.

In part, it is the triumph of the spinners, top to bottom. Since the media reached the height of its powers in the 1970s, there has been a pervasive effort to gain custody of public information in both the public and private sector. A working reporter cannot walk into a Gap store in a mall, let alone a police station, and ask a question without being swarmed by bureaucracy.

I’d bet most reporters fervently believe in the First Amendment. But their abilities to work as well and as effectively as Neil did have been increasing compromised by a corporate management that spins values-larded rhetoric while selfishly shilling for Wall Street and the White House.

This is the industry we count to protect the public’s interest. This is the industry that receives what no other does: constitutional protection from government interference.

These days, I wonder why.

17 replies »

  1. Jim, Ren, Sam … Thanks. When I reflect on what I teach and how I came to teach it, I think back to John, David, Bob and Neil. We all worked at a modest 14,000-circ rural daily. But we had a terrific paper in the ’70s and early ’80s … until we became part of a chain. Those men were good journalists and good teachers.

    Sadly, those days won’t return. Thanks again for your kind words.

  2. I followed a link to this piece from This is a fantastic work and all terribly true, but the future doesn’t have to be so dismal. When the Founders protected the Press, they also protected Speech. There are a billion blogs out there right now and I guarantee you that many of the young Turks are looking for mentors. Sure, they’re crying out into the electronic wilderness, unsure if anyone is listening, but if they’re helping or educating one reader per day, they’re still doing some good.


  3. Greed has driven all business in this country off the rails. Profits are the only thing that matter, whether you’re working for a hospital, a privatized government agency or a newspaper. Businesses that still feel the need to provide livelihoods and needed services to their community are dinosaurs. It’s not too surprising that newspapers would go the way of most other US business. Just more depressing because they are one of the last lines of defense of the people from the bad machinations of their government. Our preoccupation with blow-dried news readers also helped hasten the vacuousness of news in general.

  4. Denny, You speak for a generation of men and women fast leaving this earth.I pray that those to follow can overcome the hell that the corporations have brought to the field.

  5. BlueMonkey,

    sometimes Greed Can Be Good But only when we are all… in the “WE”… and not the “ME” mode.

    Its not so much greed (greed hasn’t changed its nature) as it is the majority being programed to be SELF serving SELF gratifying and SELF improving to the point no one pays attention to the greater community they live in and wants no responsibility for it.

    It’s true the collective “they” did the reprogramming through mass media but we fell for it and now only we can reverse it.. We changed, they didn’t. we fell for the increased sex, violence and colorful distractions… They just figured out it didn’t take much to distract us.

  6. I found your article fascinating. You bet corporations run newspapers nowadays, it’s a shame! Our site actually helps smaller papers find employees, so if anyone here needs a job writing/editing/sales, check out our site! (